Spotting phish is not always easy. Sure, there are some phish you get that are easy to spot, but over the years scammers have worked hard to create more convincing emails. By more convincingly spoofing common emails we see every day in our inbox and by leveraging cognitive biases we all have, more sophisticated phishing emails can be pretty difficult to catch. In a recently published research paper, Rick Walsh, professor of Media and Information at Michigan State University, takes a closer look at how IT experts spot the phish they get and highlights the ways even the experts can fall prey to sophisticated phishing campaigns.

How Experts Spot Phish

 Interviewing 21 IT experts, Walsh found 3 common steps they use to spot phish that come into their inbox.

Step 1: Sense Making

First, experts simply try to understand why they are receiving this email and how it relates to other things in their life. They look for things that seem to be off about the email, noting discrepancies like typos or things they know to be untrue. They also try to understand what the email is trying to get them to do. If they see a lot of discrepancies and are being urged to take quick action, they move on to the next step.

Step 2: Suspicion

In this step, the experts move away from trying to make sense of the email and starting asking themselves if this email is legitimate or not. To determine this, they start looking for evidence, like hovering over the link to see where it directs them and checking the sender’s name and address. After collecting evidence, they move to the final step.

Step 3: Decision

By this step, the experts have concluded whether or not the email is legit or not. If they believe it’s a phish, they now take some form of action. In some cases, they simply deleted the email, others however took proactive steps like reporting the phish or alerting other employees of the potential scam.

Even The Experts Can Fail

After discussing the ways experts typically spot phish, Walsh highlights a number of ways even the experts could mess up when spotting phish. Here are 3 of the most important failures Walsh highlights.

1. Automation Failure

Automation failure happens when we’re not engaging in enough sense making. We all get a lot of emails every day, so sometimes we go into auto-pilot as we go through our inbox. However, this means we’re not engaging in enough sensemaking. It’s therefore essential to take a moment to pause before opening our email and make sure we are in acting with awareness.

2. Accumulation Failure

Accumulation failure refers to the process of identifying discrepancies in emails but only looking at them one by one instead of as a whole. It can be easy to find any number of explanations for a discrepancy we see, so if you’re only thinking about each of these discrepancies in isolation, you may not become suspicious. However, if you start to add up all the issues your seeing in the email, it becomes a lot easier to tell when you need to be suspicious of what you’re seeing.

3. Evidence Failure

Lastly, evidence failure means when you make the wrong judgment on the evidence you see in an email. If, for example, you hover over the link in the email and it shows you a spoofed link that looks similar to a common website you use, you may not realize the link is bad.

 

What’s important about this research is, when it comes to social engineering, even the experts can get tripped up. It’s therefore vital that security awareness training goes beyond simply teaching you what to look for in an email. Awareness training should also teach you how to spot who an email plays on your own cognitive bias and the ways we sometimes fail to take account of important information when we look at our inbox.

 

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